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Asking questions is a job-related social skill.

Want your students to get the answers they need from a supervisor, co-worker, or customer? Increase the probability by directly teaching them how to ask questions in the workplace.

You’ve heard it before:

Student: “I know this is a stupid question but …”

Teacher: “No, there are no stupid questions.”

But are there so-called “stupid” questions? And if so, should students have an opportunity to learn what an acceptable question looks like, as well as what makes one not so acceptable? Asking questions in the workplace is an essential job-related social skill. When preparing students for jobs, consider teaching them how to ask good questions.

Various people may be asked questions on the job, including an employer/supervisor, co-worker, customer, and delivery person. Sometimes it may be difficult to know what to say when asking questions. A good place to start is to know commonly used question words—who, what, where, when, how, and why. It also helps to know different types of questions that employees may ask at work, including those that:

  • Seek clarification (“Do you want me to clean the tables first or start on the dishes?” “If a customer speaks to me first, should I still offer a store greeting?” “Can I wear shorts and flip flops on dress-down Friday?” “Do you want me to put the call through to your main number or to your private line?”).
  • Show interest or get more information (“Can you please tell me more about the management program?” “What ties go with our Fall selection of shirts?” “Did you watch the football game Saturday afternoon? Do you have a favorite team?”).
  • Find a solution to a problem (“My mother has to have surgery next Monday. Would it be possible to switch shifts with Jasmine so that I can be at the hospital with her?” “These plants look unhealthy; is there something I can do to help them grow?” “It’s really hard for me to concentrate when people keep walking in. What do you think about moving my desk to the back of the room?”).
  • Stimulate reflection (“What do you think about this shade of beige paint for your room?” “Would you want to try this brand of sausage since it is on sale?”).

In all cases, the question should be clearly stated and relate to the conversation at hand.


The Importance of Context When Asking a Question on the Job

Part of asking a question is making sure that it fits the situation. Consider these typical questions:

  • Can I have a raise? This can be a legitimate question when the employee has performed successfully in the position for some time. If this is asked by a new employee, it would probably be considered inappropriate unless, for example, there was a contractual arrangement to offer a raise within a week of starting on the job or an offer of a new position with more responsibility.
  • Can I take a day off work? When asked in the context of following company policy (e.g., asking in advance), it is usually seen as a straight-forward question. Where a worker may get into difficulty is if they ask it an hour after not showing up to work where there is no known emergency, is during a holiday rush, or when the employee already used his or her earned vacation hours.
  • Can you help me do this? Asking for help with a work task is expected when a worker is stuck or presented with an unfamiliar task.

To ensure that questions are clearly stated and relate to the conversation at hand, workers can be encouraged to think through the question first before asking it. And in some cases, they should consider asking themselves, “Will this question get me the answer I need?” Workers also can be prompted to consider the timing of the question (e.g., making sure the person has time to talk; asking the question before the situation becomes a crisis, etc.).


Teaching Students to Ask Questions

Asking questions is a featured lesson in Job-Related Social Skills: A Curriculum. Students are taught to formulate and ask questions across a variety of work situations.

In a job-related setting, asking questions breaks down into the following steps:

  1. Go to the person. Ask to speak with the person. Make sure the person has time to talk.
  2. Explain if necessary. State the problem or situation.
  3. Ask the question. Make sure it pertains to the problem or situation. Clarify the question if necessary. Speak in a clear voice.
  4. Give possible solutions or suggestions if necessary.
  5. Thank the person for answering the question. 

Learn More About Job-Related Social Skills

Cover of Job-Related Social Skills, 3rd EditionJob-Related Social Skills: A Curriculum (3rd edition) is designed to develop basic, foundational job-related social skills required across most employment areas. Instructors can use Job-Related Social Skills: A Curriculum to provide participants with these basics so that they have a step up in getting and keeping a job. Learn more.